“For heaven’s sake, do not throw Plato at me,” Nietzsche wrote in Twighlight of the Idols, in what I have found to be one of the best sources of background information on the development of his thought: a section called What I Owe to the Ancients. After extolling the early Greeks and explaining that 19th-Century (and indeed, contemporary) thinkers could not understand them without the intermediary Romans (“Who could ever have learned to write from a Greek? Who could ever have learned it without the Romans?”), Nietzsche lays seige to one of the longest-standing intellectual castles: Plato’s The Republic:
I am complete skeptic about Plato, and I have never been able to join in the admiration for the artist Plato which is customary among scholars. In the end, the subtlest judges of taste among the ancients themselves are here on my side. Plato, it seems to me, throws all stylistic forms together and is thus a first-rate decadent in style: his responsibility in thus comparable to that of the Cynics, who invented the satura Menippea. To be attracted by the Platonic dialogue, this horribly self-satisfied and childish kind of dialectic, one must never have read good French writers—Fontenelle, for example. Plato is boring.
In the end, my mistrust of Plato goes deep: he represents such an aberration from all the basic instincts of the Hellene, is so moralistic, so pre-existently Christian—he already takes the concept “good” for the highest concept—that for the whole phenomenon Plato I would sooner use the harsh phrase “higher swindle,” or, if it sounds better, “idealism,” than any other.
Not surprisingly, I for one tend to agree. In fact, I wrote a paper in my favorite political philosophy class in college about Plato/Socrates losing the argument presented in the book, which I somehow later adapted into a totally different paper about Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (the hallmark of such a “well-rounded” humanities education at a small liberal arts school, right?).
The character of Thrasymachus in The Republic, Plato’s scowling straw-man, is of particular importance, and is worth looking up—as much as it’s worth re-reading Republic with him as the unlikely protagonist. He argues the nihilist viewpoint quite well, despite Plato’s linguistic tricks and the fact that he is the one telling the story. And while at first it might seem that he’s attempting to justify any action whatsoever, as long as its made in the pursuit of strength, what he’s really doing is challenging the premise that there is an ideal human—or ideal human-made worldview—in the first place.
Here is where Nietzsche also has a problem, writing in the aforementioned section: “In that great calamity, Christianity, Plato represents the ambiguity and fascination, called an ‘ideal,’ which made it possible for the nobler spirits of antiquity to misunderstand themselves and to set foot on the bridge leading to the cross.”
But before digging even that deep, I think one could find fault with The Republic‘s justification of, if not call for, a rigid caste system enforced by an arbitrary and lopsided hierarchy, as if “king” and “justice” could be uttered in the same breath coherently. That, by the way, is my same critique of Bob Marley, which I’ve detailed here.
And yet, every philosophy student will still read The Republic and most likely come away with the exact opposite response that should be expected of a truly critical thinker: namely, that someone can will something into existence simply by asserting it, and that the burden of proof is then on the listener of such an assertion and not on its author. Plato insists that there must be this thing that is an essence of intrinsic goodness, and then hears compelling evidence to the contrary (most notably by our friend Thrasymachus), and then continues to insist on his original assertion unmodified—and then, further, builds a whole undemocratic militarized State with said assertion as the foundation. Pretty boring, eh?